How Globalization Changes Our Structures And Our Understanding Of The World Around Us

Today the world is in a more globalized position than it ever was before. While the concept of globalization itself can be incredibly challenging to define, it is experienced by all of us in one way or another. How we experience and understand globalization is informed by advances in technology, environmental conditions, and economic relationships. Through social media and the Internet, people in the Global South and Global North are able to more easily communicate with one another. Environmental degradation cannot simply be contained in national borders. Economic relationships are increasingly influenced by consistently decreasing resources and disputes over labor. All the while, systems of oppression that have existed for centuries are coming into question while many of the countries who have oppressed others are fighting to maintain their international privilege. While each of these factors demonstrates the significance of globalization, there is arguably nothing more significant than the global paradigm shift that must take place for us to navigate this change in the world. Through exploring the studies of international relations and global politics and examining two key political theories, we can understand how we must think and learn about globalization. Naturally, a distinctive phenomenon like globalization necessitates a distinctive way to learn about it.

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Before delving into how different political theories can shape how we understand the world, we must first acknowledge the relationship between international relations and world politics. From a practical perspective, international relations refers to how different members of the state system interact with one another and how those interactions impact other nations. In academia, the study of international relations primarily deals with topics of “war and peace, the organization of the global economy, the causes and consequences of global inequality and a pending global catastrophe”. Based on this description, the study of international relations is clearly a worthwhile one. However, the term “international” necessarily implies that the focus of international relations is rooted predominately in the interactions of nation-states.

While the interactions between nation-states is still incredibly important, it can exclude some relevant issues coming to the forefront with globalization. As mentioned before, there are countless different ways to define globalization depending on its impact and prevalence. In “Globalization and global politics,” McGrew outlines many different possible definitions of globalization including that the term “implies that the cumulative scale, scope, velocity, and depth of contemporary interconnectedness is dissolving the significance of the national borders and boundaries that separate the world into its many constituent states or national economic and political spaces”. In other words, as globalization increasingly becomes the norm, the borders that have been so crucial to the state system are decreasingly relevant. This necessarily suggests that the study of international relations, as it exists today, cannot capture the many political issues that transcend national boundaries today.

The inability of international relations to capture the key elements of the global opens up a space for something new to emerge. Global studies, while it can easily be mistaken for international relations has become increasingly prevalent. Like globalization, global studies itself can be challenging to define. This is partially due to the novelty and dynamic nature of globalization and the increased need to understand it. The article “What is Global Studies?” outlines many different elements and fundamental ideas pertaining to global studies. Global studies takes on board global knowledge and data that may be left out of studies of globalization because they fall outside disciplinary boxes, so global studies is a double synthesis, of diverse global knowledge and of globalization studies. Summing up, global studies is interdisciplinary, combines diverse databases, and seeks to provide kaleidoscopic and panoramic perspectives on global conditions and cognitions. Because globalization itself goes beyond both national and disciplinary boundaries, global studies must reflect the more pervasive nature of globalization. Given all the different perspectives, understanding globalization seems like an insurmountable task. This opens up an entirely new question. How do we learn about the world around us in a globalized time while ensuring each perspective is reflected?

Many in global studies have already sought to answer this question through different political theories. While there are numerous theories to analyze, this paper will only look at two to demonstrate how different perspectives can impact the political sphere at a global level. One of these theoretical perspectives is realism. From an ideological perspective, “realism is presented as a theory of international relations which seeks to tell how it is, rather than how it ought to be”. Of course, explaining how it is can often be just as challenging as saying how it ought to be. After all, who decides what the overarching reality of the world is? Regardless of this question, realists do believe that the reality of the world is relatively bleak. According to Owens, Baylis, and Smith, realism considers the main actors in world politics to be sovereign states. Realists view human nature as inherently selfish and the resulting political actions are rooted in promoting one’s own national interest. The realist mentality is reflected in numerous different Western institutions. Consider the fundamental premises of capitalism — the Western economic structure and the increasingly pervasive global one as well. Capitalism is based in the assumption that humans will use the resources they have to act in their own self-interest. Adam Smith, considered the father of capitalism, popularized the idea of an “invisible hand” where an individual acting in their own selfishness can benefit the overall economy. While capitalism itself is not exactly the same as realism, it exists under the same key assumptions — that humans are selfish and that they will act on that selfishness. Realists believe this selfishness exists at the nation-state level and that nations are constantly in conflict with one another to ensure that their own interests are achieved. While realism has existed for centuries, it has recently taken on a new and different form in response to the international conflict of the Cold War. Neorealism “stresses the importance of the structure of the international system in affecting the behavior of all states”. In other words, neorealism is less concerned with the individual state interests and more concerned with how states maintain power over one another. Interestingly, neorealism places a higher priority on the state system at a time when post-Cold War globalization is coming into focus.

In direct opposition to realism exists postmodernism, which can also be referred to as poststructuralism. While realists maintain that they are simply acknowledging fundamental truths about humanity, postmodernists would push back on the idea that there is any fundamental truth about humanity. Lawson notes, “a common theme running throughout postmodern analyses is the rejection of objective truth and, as a corollary, of firm foundations for knowledge, including moral knowledge. For this reason, postmodernists are frequently accused of embracing a radical ethical relativism or at least of offering only negative critiques of foundational theories”. This belief puts postmodernists at odds, not only with realism, but other theories that is based in an accessible, universal, human truth. Instead, postmodernists see truth and knowledge as inextricably tied to power. Owens, Baylis, and Smith cite Michel Foucault as one of the major philosophical influencers of postmodernism as illustrating the relationship between knowledge and power. All power requires knowledge and all knowledge relies on and reinforces existing power relations. Thus there is no such thing as ‘truth’ existing outside of power. Truth is not something external to social settings, but is instead part of them. Poststructuralist international theorists have used this insight to examine the ‘truths’ of international relations theory, to see how the concepts that dominate the discipline are in fact highly contingent on specific power relations. This relationship between knowledge and power inevitably means that postmodernists are inherently skeptical of movements that attempt to achieve an ideal based in universal truth. Instead of replacing oppressive structures with ones that could be just as oppressive, postmodernists promote resisting oppression at smaller levels.

While there are numerous other theories of international relations and world politics, the differences between realism and postmodernism demonstrate how a certain worldview can have massive policy implications. For instance, with realism being a prominent ideal today, we see lots of attachment to the concept of the nation-state. Understanding realism might help explain, to a degree, why we are seeing so much pushback in the West to a more interrelated world. Alternatively, postmodernism cares little, if at all, about borders and instead focuses in on how different aspects of the state system impact power. Because this theory is newer than realism, it can help demonstrate how globalization is altering our perception of world politics and our leadership structures. When adding other international theories to the mix, it becomes clear that there is a distinct need to alter how we view the world in light of a transition to a more globalized society. I believe that a thorough education in global politics is the only way to achieve this paradigm shift. Here, it is important to note that increased interconnectedness with the rest of the world can have profoundly negative and positive implications.

Globalization alone cannot be a positive force if it remains so closely linked to many oppressive structures that exist before it. While there are far too many means of oppression to address in this paper, it is incredibly important to acknowledge that without a more democratic form of education, globalization could lead to more oppression. De Lissovoy lists numerous ways to help usher in a more democratic means of education in a global era.

A pedagogy in common calls for a curriculum of trade and economics that would consider not only conventional accounts of development, but also critical analyses of the social and environmental ravages caused by the ubiquitous processes of marginalization and privatization [. . .] as well as discussion of the spaces created by movements of popular protest and alternative practices. This quote demonstrates just one way we can educate others with a heightened global awareness. We must go beyond learning about our own system of economics and branch out into other systems that could be just as effective. At the same time, we should always be skeptical of the things we have always done and include a critical approach. Pieterse also suggests the danger of viewing global studies through the same lens commonly used in education. Global studies is transnational, both contemporary and historical, and tends to be postcolonial and critical. This sprawl enables diversity, but its ad hoc character suggests that global studies is yet to be defined analytically and programmatically. To the extent that globalization research is presentist, Eurocentric, and stuck in disciplinary grooves, global studies are apt to reproduce these features, except for the disciplinary moorings. If we are to truly understand the way the world works in an increasingly globalized world, then we must abandon the disciplinary, Eurocentric, and presentist features of our educational system. If we can educate students on how to raise their awareness of those around the world, the systems that can oppress others, and the systems that could be incredibly effective, then we will be able to achieve a much healthier process of transcending borders.

Overall, globalization is certainly a game-changer in more ways than one. However, I maintain that the most significant way globalization is changing the world is through perception. How we perceive the world around us is becoming less and less steeped in nationalistic ideology and is going beyond borders. As this is taking place, it is crucial to have an understanding of those different philosophies of how the world works as they help us understand how we arrived at this stage in world politics and present possibilities for moving forward. The best way to learn those philosophies is through a more holistic and democratic education system. A paradigm shift cannot occur in the institutions that have existed long before globalization, but must come from learning about the different ways to understand the world at large. Ultimately, this understanding can help guide us through political actions and events that support the world rather than degrade it. Globalization is a game-changer, but we can determine how it changes the game.

03 December 2019

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